Allow me to let you into a secret. Generally speaking, in the celebrity interview game, the writer is not bothered about his or her subject’s credentials as a decent human being. What we’re after, rather, is a modicum of insight plus a few juicily indiscreet quotes to entertain our readers. Likeability comes a distant second.
Just occasionally, however, you get assigned to sit opposite someone whom you hope will, in the flesh, possess the same charm and warmth they project in their public role. By which I mean those figures you personally admire and respect, the ones you find yourself hoping will match your expectations.
I am happy to add Sir Tom Courtenay to my list. The distinguished actor is, at 78, busy extending his long and garlanded career into something of an Indian summer. Having met him recently to discuss this renaissance, I can report he emerged from our conversation as the delightful chap I believed and hoped him to be.
Here is one example of what I mean. “So, Sir Tom,” I begin, hamming up his title to see how he will react. “Oh per-lease,” he objects, wincing at the honorific. “Don’t say ‘Sir’.” And here is a second example. Not long into our chat – the point of it being to discuss 45 Years, Courtenay’s new critically acclaimed, indeed, award-winning film (in cinemas and available on Virgin Movies from Friday 28th August) – the business of his late-flowering output comes up. “Ah yes,” he grunts, “Colin Firth called it my resurgence. The cheeky sod.”
A third illustration of the chap’s self-effacement, affability and all-round general good-blokeishness follows swiftly afterwards. “I could have been,” he confides, “even more resurgent if I’d been a bit cleverer with my choices.”
Meaning he turned good parts down, right? He hums and haws. “I did,” he eventually admits, “turn down something somebody got an Oscar for. I’m not saying I would have got the Oscar for it, of course.” It was “hurtful”, he says. “But it’s over and I’ve survived. I think.”
Courtenay coughs uncomfortably and proceeds to angle his mobile phone towards me. He wants to show me a picture of Stanley, his dog, of whom he confides Dame Maggie Smith can do a very good impersonation. I duly admire Stanley, who is indeed a handsome chap, a pointer, clearly adored by Courtenay and Isabel, his wife of almost 30 years. “Lovely dog,” I say, before returning to the business of Oscars unwon.
“I’ve been nominated twice,” he says, “a long time ago, for Doctor Zhivago and The Dresser. Supporting and, er, leading.” Does it bother him, not having won? “Oh no,” he says, apparently surprised by the idea. “I didn’t expect to. When I was up for supporting I was against… Oh, who was he? Lovely actor. Wonderful lugubrious face. Pal of Jack Lemmon. American…” “Walter Matthau?” I suggest (erroneously, as it turns out). “Yeah, that’s him. Well, no contest, eh?”